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Dungeons & Dragons controversies concern the first and most popular role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), which has received significant attention in the media and in popular culture. Some of the game's coverage has been negative, especially during the game's early years in the early 1980s. Because the term D&D is sometimes used broadly to refer to all types of role-playing games, some of the controversies regarding D&D actually pertain to role-playing games in general, or to the literary genre of Fantasy as a whole.

Some of the controversies that have arisen concern the game itself and its alleged impact on those who play it, and others concern business issues at the game's original publisher, TSR, Inc., now owned by Wizards of the Coast.

Religious objections[edit | edit source]

File:Occult dnd.jpg

In Dark Dungeons by Jack Chick, a girl gets involved in witchcraft through the "occult training" she receives while playing D&D. Later she converts to Christianity and rejects the game, burning the materials.

At various times in its history, Dungeons & Dragons has received negative publicity for alleged promotion of such practices as devil worship, witchcraft, suicide, and murder. In the 1980s especially, some religious groups accused the game of encouraging interest in sorcery and demonic creatures.[1] Throughout the history of roleplaying games, many of these criticisms have been aimed specifically at "Dungeons & Dragons", but touch on the genre of fantasy roleplaying games as a whole.

The concept of Dungeons & Dragons as somehow demonic was also linked to the concept of satanic ritual abuse (SRA), in that both presumed the existence of large, organized Satanic cults and societies. Sources such as the famous Dark Dungeons[2] tract from Chick Publications portray D&D as a recruitment tool for these organizations.

Patricia Pulling[edit | edit source]

Patricia Pulling was an anti-occult campaigner from Richmond, Virginia, and was the founder of Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD). This one-person advocacy group was dedicated to the elimination of Dungeons and Dragons and other such games between 1982 – when her son Irving committed suicide – and her death in 1997. Her son played Dungeons & Dragons, and at first she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her son's high school principal, Robert A. Bracey III, holding him responsible for what she claimed was a Dungeons & Dragons curse placed upon her son shortly before his death. She also filed suit against TSR, Inc., the publishers of the game, at that time.

When her lawsuits were dismissed, she founded BADD and began publishing information circulating her belief that D&D encouraged devil worship and suicide. BADD described D&D as "a fantasy role-playing game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings."[1]

All of her related suits lost in court.[1] Ms. Pulling was also the author of a book, The Devil's Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children For Satan? published by Vital Issues Press in August 1989 (ISBN 0-910311-59-5).

The Schnoebelen articles[edit | edit source]

Chick Publications also published Bill Schnoebelen's two essays, Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons[3] and Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons?[4] Published over a decade apart, these essays attempt to portray Dungeons & Dragons as a tool for satanic and New Age groups to introduce concepts and behaviors that are seen as contrary to Christian teaching and morality.

The first article, which cited Patricia Pulling as a source, summarized D&D as "a feeding program for occultism and witchcraft [which] violates the commandment of I Ths. 5:22 'Abstain from all appearance of evil.'" It continued on to suggest that rituals described in the game were actually capable of summoning demons and other real-world effects, though the books themselves describe no such detailed mechanics for any spell or ritual. It also took elements of the books out of context. For example the book states that, "the Dungeon Master's Guide gives the celebrated Adolf Hitler as an example of a real historical person that exhibited D&D charisma!" While this is technically true, the book never suggests that Hitler is "celebrated", nor that he is a model of an acceptable D&D character. The passage in the book (the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 15) is intended to distinguish the D&D attribute of Charisma from physical beauty. It cites Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler as examples of individuals who were not notably attractive, but were notably high in persuasiveness and personal magnetism, and thus would have high Charisma in the D&D sense. There is no connection in D&D between Charisma and whether a character is good or evil (good and evil are part of a separate attribute, Alignment).

The second article took a subtler approach, and refrained from statements of the original such as "pain and torture are heavily involved in sadistic, sexual situations [which] stresses the defilement of innocence". Instead, it focused on the supposed contrast between the apparently "realistic" Christian world-view and the fantasy worldview of Dungeons & Dragons, suggesting that "being exposed to all these ideas of magic to the degree that the game requires cannot but help have a significant impact on the minds of the players."

The Hickman articles[edit | edit source]

Tracy Hickman, a prolific author of Dungeons & Dragons materials, has written many articles about the ethics of Dungeons & Dragons from the point of view of Christianity. His Ethics in Fantasy: Morality and D&D / Part 1: That Evil Game![5] details a number of concerns about the ethics surrounding Dungeons & Dragons, but also outlines a number of the hurdles in gamers and non-gamers communicating over these topics.

TSR's reaction[edit | edit source]

The controversy led TSR to remove references to demons, devils, and other potentially controversial supernatural monsters from the 2nd Edition of AD&D.[6] These references were replaced by references to tanar'ri and baatezu. Many of these exclusions were not returned to the game until the release of the 3rd Edition in 2000. And in fact, a few 3rd Edition products have addressed demons and devil-worship far more explicitly than materials from previous editions. The more 'extreme' manuals, specifically the Book of Vile Darkness and the Book of Exalted Deeds, bear a "For Mature Audiences Only" label.

Psychological impact[edit | edit source]

Dungeons & Dragons has also been plagued by rumors since the early 1980s of players having psychological problems related to the game. These include claims that players have difficulty separating fantasy and reality, even leading to schizophrenia and suicide.

Mazes and Monsters[edit | edit source]

Main article: Steam tunnel incident

As the role-playing game hobby began to grow, it was connected to the disturbing story in 1979 of the disappearance of 16-year-old James Dallas Egbert III. Egbert had attempted suicide in the utility tunnels beneath the campus of Michigan State University, and after his unsuccessful attempt, hid out at a friend's house for approximately a month.

A well-publicized search for Egbert began, and his parents hired private investigator William Dear to seek out their son. Dear knew nothing about Dungeons & Dragons at that time, but speculated to the press that Egbert had gotten lost in the steam tunnels during a live-action version of the game. The press largely reported the story as fact, which served as the kernel of a persistent urban myth regarding such "steam tunnel incidents." Egbert's suicide attempts, including his successful suicide the following year (by self-inflicted gunshot) had no connection whatsoever to D&D, being brought on by his being a talented but highly depressed young man under incredible stress.[7]

Rona Jaffe published Mazes and Monsters in 1981, a thinly disguised fictionalization of the press exaggerations of the Egbert case. In an era when very few people understood role-playing games it seemed plausible to the public that a player might experience a psychotic episode and lose touch with reality during role-playing. The book saw adaptation into a made-for-television movie in 1982 starring Tom Hanks, and the publicity surrounding both the novel and film version served to heighten the public's unease regarding role-playing games.

Dear later revealed the truth of the incident in his 1984 book The Dungeon Master, in which he repudiated the link between D&D and Egbert's disappearance. Dear acknowledged that Egbert's domineering father had more to do with his problems than his interest in role-playing games.[7]

Hobgoblin[edit | edit source]

Hobgoblin is a 1981 novel by horror and suspense writer John Coyne which also cashed in on the angst about the Egbert incident, and D&D and fantasy role-playing games in general. This thriller is about a young man, John Gardiner (perhaps a sly nod to novelist John Gardner, author of Grendel, the Beowulf fable told from the monster's perspective), whose obsession with a role-playing game called Hobgoblin leads to a mysterious series of killings with apparent links to fantasy game scenarios. Gardiner is revealed as the murderer because he had taken on his character's role after suffering a mental breakdown. However, Coyne's approach to the matter of the "mind-warping" effects of gaming is strictly tongue-in-cheek, and in fact the incessant bullying Gardiner suffers from schoolmates is clearly the root cause of his eventual psychotic behavior.

GamerZ[edit | edit source]

A 2005 comedy from Scotland directed by Robbie Fraser (USA title: GamerZ: One Game to Rule Them All), this film artfully blends fantasy and reality in such a way that they intertwine but remain distinct. The idea in this film is that the gaming by the young characters actually helps them to understand, grapple with, and successfully overcome their difficulties in reality without suicide pacts or killing rampages, a reversal of the argument about D&D fantasy scenarios being dangerous and damaging influences on youth.

Lieth Von Stein[edit | edit source]

In 1988, a murder case in central North Carolina involving NCSU students brought Dungeons & Dragons more unfavorable publicity. Chris Pritchard allegedly masterminded the murder of his stepfather, Lieth Von Stein, for his $2 million fortune. Both von Stein and his wife, Bonnie, were bludgeoned and stabbed by masked assailants in their bedroom, leaving the husband mortally injured and the wife injured.

Chris Pritchard had a long history of mutual antagonism with his stepfather, and state investigators learned over the course of a year that Pritchard had developed some unhealthy associations at NCSU. Pritchard had a known history for alcohol and drug use. But the NC state authorities also seized on his role-playing group after a 'game map' depicting the von Stein house turned up as physical evidence. Pritchard's friends Gerald Neal Henderson and James "Moog" Upchurch III were implicated in a plot to help Pritchard kill his stepfather. All three young men went to state prison in 1990. Henderson and Pritchard have since been paroled. Upchurch's death sentence was commuted to life in 1992; he is serving his term.

True crime authors such as Joe McGinniss and Jerry Bledsoe played up the role-playing angle. Much attention was given to Upchurch's influence and power as Dungeon Master. Bledsoe's book, Blood Games, was made into a TV movie, Honor Thy Mother, in 1992. That same year, McGinniss' book was adapted into a two part TV miniseries, Cruel Doubt. The latter film featured real role-playing game materials, doctored to imply they had caused the murders.[8]

Israeli army[edit | edit source]

The Israeli army has an official policy that frowns on the playing of D&D by Israeli soldiers. Their position is that game play makes players "detached from reality and susceptible to influence”, automatically lowering their security clearance. Due to these pressures, most soldiers that play D&D hide this fact.[9]

Clinical research[edit | edit source]

The American Association of Suicidology, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Health & Welfare (Canada) all concluded that there is no causal link between fantasy gaming and suicide.[10] In 1990, the writer Michael Stackpole authored the The Pulling Report, a review highly critical of Patricia Pulling's and BADD's methods of data collection, analysis and reporting.[11]

Even outside of the context of BADD, researchers have investigated the emotional impact of Dungeons & Dragons since the 1980s. A number of studies have shown that depression and suicidal tendencies are not typically associated with role players[12], feelings of alienation are not associated with the mainstream player (though those who are deeply, and often financially, committed to the game do tend to have these feelings)[13], and according to one study there is "no significant correlation between years of playing the game and emotional stability."[14] Despite tenuous anecdotal evidence to the contrary, suicide and fantasy role-playing have not been shown to have any causal link.

Business disputes at TSR[edit | edit source]

The game's commercial success led to lawsuits initiated in 1979 regarding distribution of royalties between D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Specifically at issue were the royalties for AD&D, a product for which TSR did not acknowledge Arneson's intellectual property claims. Those suits were settled out of court by 1981.[15][16]

Gygax himself became embroiled in a political struggle for control of TSR and disputes related to the company’s deteriorating financial situation in the early 1980s. The disagreements culminated in a court battle and Gygax’s decision to sell his ownership interest in the company in 1985.[17]

Licensing and trademark violations[edit | edit source]

Early in the game's history, TSR summarily revoked the license to create AD&D-compatible items it had previously granted to the publishing company Judges Guild. TSR's action was a primary cause of the smaller publisher's decision to cease operations in the early 1980s.

Grimoire Games, which published David A. Hargrave's multi-volume Arduin series, had no such license. When presented with a cease and desist order regarding the use of TSR's trademarks, Grimoire was forced to rely on white-out and typing correction tape to mask its use of AD&D references in subsequent printings of the Arduin series.

TSR itself ran afoul of intellectual property law with respect to the Cthulhu Mythos and Melnibonéan Mythos it had included in early versions of the Deities & Demigods manual. These problems were ultimately resolved by excising the material from later editions of the book.[18] Similarly, references in early TSR publications to certain creatures from J.R.R. Tolkien's mythical Middle-earth were also removed or altered due to intellectual property concerns.[19] For example, TSR replaced all references to the race of Hobbits in D&D with their alternate name, Halflings - which was also coined by Tolkien but judged by TSR to be non-infringing.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Role-Playing Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic in Journal of Religion and Popular Culture
  2. Dark Dungeons
  3. Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons
  4. Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons?
  5. Ethics in Fantasy: Morality and D&D / Part 1: That Evil Game!
  6. Ward, James M (1990). 'The Games Wizards: Angry Mothers From Heck (And what we do about them).' Dragon, 154:9, Feb 1990.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Dear, William C. Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, Houghton Mifflin, 1984
  8. Cruel Doubt on The Escapist's FAQ
  9. Army frowns on Dungeons and Dragons
  10. QUESTIONS & ANSWERS ABOUT ROLE-PLAYING GAMES, Loren K. Wiseman and Michael A. Stackpole, ©1991 by Game Manufacturers Association
  11. The Pulling Report by Michael A. Stackpole
  12. Personalities of players of Dungeons and Dragons
  13. Alienation and the game dungeons and dragons
  14. Emotional Stability Pertaining to the Game of Dungeons & Dragons, , p.. . (Temporary fix for {{cite journal}}, please update to use {{cite dragon}} and similar templates.)
  15. Interview with Dave Arneson, Pegasus, p.. Apr/May 1981. (Temporary fix for {{cite journal}}, please update to use {{cite dragon}} and similar templates.)
  16. Dave Arneson Interview
  17. Gygax FAQ
  18. The Acaeum page on Deities & Demigods shows contents of different printings.
  19. Copyright conflicts with the Tolkien Estate lead to removal of references to Hobbits, Ents and others, shown on The Acaeum page on Original D&D Set

Further reading[edit | edit source]

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